Oakland educators team up with Silicon Valley to bring technology to the classroom

Educators and companies spoke with each other over lunch at the Silicon Valley Tech for Schools Summit. (Credit: Pablo de la Hoya)

Educators and companies spoke with each other over lunch at the Silicon Valley Tech for Schools Summit. (Credit: Pablo de la Hoya)

Oakland’s educators met with Silicon Valley technology companies this weekend at a conference to discuss how they can work together to improve science and technology education in the classroom.

EdSurge, an independent news and media company that writes about education technology and helps connect schools with companies, held a two-day conference called the Silicon Valley Tech for Schools Summit to bring together educators, companies, and district administrators to explore the possibilities of new technologies and classes in school districts.

The summit in the East Bay took place just as technology education in Oakland received a big boost. Software company Salesforce.com announced last week a $2.5 million donation to Oakland’s public schools to promote math and computer science curriculums.

EdSurge said it created the event last year to help address disparities in how school districts implement so-called STEM programs. STEM stands for science, technology, education and math.

“We don’t believe in technology for technology’s sake. We believe in the right use of technology,” Michelle Spencer, the director of summits at EdSurge, said at the event.

Co-founded in 2011 by former technology journalist Betsy Corcoran, EdSurge started as a digital newsletter reporting on and evaluating products in education technology. Since then, the company has expanded to provide a vehicle for educators and companies to connect and potentially work together.

Spencer said EdSurge developed the conference program by asking the sponsors and co-hosts to tell them about their priorities and needs in the classroom. Then they reached out to their network of companies who submitted applications for attendance based on those needs. Final selections for the conference were determined by votes from local educators who evaluated the applications.

This year, the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) and the Rogers Family Foundation were co-hosts of the conference. They provided the locations, food and financial assistance for the event, allowing EdSurge to keep the event free for teachers on both days.

Claire Shorall, the manager of computer science for the OUSD, came to the conference to speak about the importance of computer science classes in elementary through high schools during her panel.

“My goal today is to talk to others about how they can scale this work in their own district,” Shorall said. “If it inspires even just one district to prioritize computer science in a way that is actionable for kids, then it was an afternoon well spent.”

During another panel, Carolina Huaranca Mendoza of Kapor Capital provided the attendees with a primer on how to identify and evaluate which companies are right for school districts. Mendoza said that to be relevant, it is important that edtech companies be run by a team with experience in education. She said the most effective companies would be able to draw from their backgrounds to understand the classroom problem they are solving.

David Silver, director of education for Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, said he attended the event to support EdSurge’s effort to connect schools with technology resources and to introduce Oakland Promise, the mayor’s initiative to increase the rate of Oakland schoolchildren graduating from college.

“We’re aiming to make sure all of our kids have the opportunities that they desire,” said Silver in his address at the conference. “It’s one thing to have all this technology in the Silicon Valley and Bay Area. But part of what we’re trying to do is make sure the right people have the right technology to make sure that we can give the right impact for our kids.”

During panel discussions, several teachers in attendance discussed the difficulty of teaching a classroom of 30 students with different levels of skill in math and reading comprehension. Others expressed concern over the financial cost of introducing technology and STEM into their districts in underserved and low-income areas.

Jennifer Everhart, a fourth-grade teacher at Think College Now School in Oakland, said technology has already had an effect on her classroom in the last two years by providing tools for her students who learn in different ways or express their thinking in different ways.

During the event, attendees broke out into deep dive sessions where educators could meet with representatives from specific companies to learn more about their products, to see if they would be a good fit and provide feedback to the company on their product.

Robert Reimer attended the conference as a representative for Think Through Math, a company that provides online instructors for supplemental math tutoring in and out of the classroom. “Our goal is to get in front of the people that are thinking about ways to get creative in looking at how to educate students,” said Reimer.

Some of the other issues discussed at the conference included how to make use of technology in the classroom, progress in implementing technology like Wi-Fi and computers into certain schools, and the need to provide Oakland students with resources for success after graduating high school.

“Our mission is empower teachers to find the right technology to solve their problems,” said EdSurge’s Spencer. “It’s really only when you find the right match that you can move the needle on student learning.”

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